EVERY NOW and then -- and this month has been one of those times -- the news seems filled with enough disturbing airplane stories to make a test pilot swear off flight. Samples over the last two weeks, as reported by transportation writer Douglas B. Feaver, have covered a variety of air safety issues:
* Penalties sought by the Federal Aviation Administration against Continental Airlines for allegedly violating three safety regulations.
* Investigations of the Brazilian-made Provincetown-Boston Airline plane that crashed in Florida, killing all 13 aboard.
* Questions about whether the FAA was too hasty in returning PBA to service after 15 days' grounding on charges of "fraudulent or intentionally false statements" concerning the training and testing of flight crews.
* Charges by the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board that the FAA's airline safety inspection program is inefficient and undermanned.
A task force finding that traffic controllers hired to replace those fired by President Reagan in 1981 believe they are overworked and feel at times that air traffic is "exceeding the capacity of the human-technical system."
While none of these reports should be ignored or glossed over, neither is there cause at this point for public alarm or for charges that it's all the fault of deregulation. In fact, the safest six-year period in history has been that since 1978, when deregulation took effect. But just as deregulation does not automatically mean an end to safety measures, those regulations that govern safety and the personnel to make them work should not be sacrificed in the name of deregulation or for half-baked budgetary reasons.
It is true that deregulation has changed the market. New attention has been and should be focusing on commuter airlines, which have moved in where the larger airlines have left. Because of this, and because the commuter safety record has trailed that of major carriers, there is concern in Congress that the FAA may need more -- not less -- staff to maintain surveillance. On this score, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole has ordered a "white gloves" inspection of every big and small airline in the country.
As for the controllers, the study cited was conducted last summer during peak times at the busiest airports. The real test won't come again until next summer, when the results of more training may improve operations; or if budgets are cut, staffs trimmed and necessary computer systems not installed, morale and safety questions may be far more worrisome.
So for now, some doses of patience, vigilance and congressional and governmental scrutiny are in order -- bolstered by a financial commitment to airline inspections, controller training and computer systems. As we have noted before, there is money in the aviation trust fund that has been raised through ticket taxes and taxes charged to general aviation. The spending of this money would merely be for the purposes it was levied in the first place. And it could improve the possibilities for even safer air travel and increase public confidence in flying.